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Platform, Vol. 3, No.

2, Objects oI Engagement, Autumn 2008

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Bernadette Cronin (University oI Exeter)

On experiencing the multiple cabinets and gardens in the Jardin des Plantes in 1833,
Ralph Waldo Emerson was struck by the aIIect the compositional structure had on him,
noting in his journal: How much Iiner things are in composition than alone. Tis wise in
man to make Cabinets` (Brown 57). Emerson had already come to the conclusion that
man only has to behold a star and immediately a process oI marriage` between object
and subject begins, but |i|n Paris, Emerson Iound this 'marriage Iormalized in the
systematic compositions oI the |.| various cabinets`(58). According to Brown,
Emerson`s act oI reading what his eye encountered in the Jardin des Plantes creating
series, Iorm, organzisation, relation related to the kind oI synthesis or composition oI
ideas he strove Ior in his writing (58). I am a member oI GAITKRASH, a small
perIormance company, and in this article I will discuss our developing perIormance
piece, The Cabinet of Curiosities. The Cabinet of Curiosities uses, and indeed Iocuses on,
objects in and as perIormance, and I will discuss a selection oI objects which have
Ieatured in the cabinet in the context oI the theories and artistic sources that have
inIormed our work. I will consider these objects in the light oI Emerson`s sense oI objects
as compositions emerging Irom the marriage between object and subject. Central to this
inquiry is the idea oI porosity the porosity oI the artists to one another`s ideas, which
gave rise to the composition that is the piece, and the porosity oI the spectator`s
perceptual powers to the visual and aural elements, giving rise to composite objects.

Due to the medium in which I am presenting these ideas, it will not be possible to adequately convey a
sense oI the aural elements oI the piece: I am asking the reader to make a leap oI Iaith in this regard.
Cabinet of Curiosities

Fig. 1. The Cabinet, dvd still, 4 March 2007. Photo: Claire Guerin.
The Cabinet of Curiosities was the Iirst piece oI work to be devised and
perIormed by GAITKRASH. We are a small perIormance company, based in Cork in the
South oI Ireland, consisting oI a sound artist, Mick O`Shea, and two actors (Regina
Crowley and myselI). The piece is designed to tour, but our preIerred site is a small, dark
narrow space with an audience capacity oI about twenty.
The set is a wooden cabinet,
10It tall and 5It wide, mounted on a platIorm. It consists oI 12 individual compartments,
6 on either side. Each compartment is equipped with an individual dimmer switch,
controlled by the perIormers, and a pair oI red velour curtains, creating the eIIect oI 12
individual mini-stages. The cabinet is backless, and the two perIormers are concealed
behind it. The sound artist sits, with his table oI instruments, to one side oI the
perIormance space, and has a clear view oI what is happening in the cabinet. Once the

To date, the piece has been perIormed at the Granary Theatre, PlatIorm Artists Series, Cork, 18-19 May
2006; Impact Theatre, Limerick, Excursions PerIormance Festival, 3 December 2006; PerIorum Series,
Granary Studio, Cork, March 2007.
Platform, Vol. 3, No. 2, Objects oI Engagement, Autumn 2008

audience is seated in Iront oI the cabinet, an attendant cues the perIormers by opening the
cabinet. The perIormance lasts between 25 and 35 minutes, the attendant closing the
cabinet again when cued by the sound artist. Using their hands, the perIormers engage
with and manipulate objects in dialogue with the sound artist. The objects perIormed in
this manner include Iound` inanimate objects, animal organs, Iruit and vegetables, pieces
oI text, toys, minerals, liquids, among others. The sound artist`s table oI instruments is a
collection oI curiosities in its own right, including, Ior example, parts oI musical
instruments, battery-operated Ians, mobile phones, wind-up toys, selI-made instruments
all electronically ampliIied.

Fig. 2, Mick O`Shea, dvd still. Photo: Claire Guerin.
The initial impulse that gave rise to the project was the desire to Iind an artistic
Iorm that would reIlect the conversations we had been having with each other on issues
relating to the body. These could be broken down into three broad categories. First, we
were interested in a sense oI the sight and sound oI the inner workings oI the body. Like
Michel Leiris, we are not interested in the body as only gross matter and a despicable
Cabinet of Curiosities
magma oI viscera,` but as a mysterious theatre which provides a stage Ior all exchange
whether oI matter, mind, or the sense between inner and outer worlds` (qtd in Ewing
386). Secondly, we wanted to question the idea oI the skin as a boundary between outside
and inside: the skin is commonly perceived as a container oI a psychic space, but the
body`s oriIices complicate this sense oI the skin Iorming a boundary between outside and
inside. Where, Ior example, does the outside oI the lip end and the inside begin, what
about the nostril? We speak oI the outer ear, the middle ear and the inner ear, but where
exactly is the boundary line between outside and inside? The same question could be
applied to the eyes, the eyelids, the genitals etc. Thirdly, we wanted to explore the desire
to break things down into their component parts, in order to uncover their mysteries.
We decided to base our perIormance on the model oI a conversation: Regina and I
oIIer the sound artist visual impulses to engage with and Mick oIIers us auditory
impulses in response to what he sees. This results in compositions made up oI aural and
visual stimuli. These are oIIered to our audience to respond to in whatever way they
choose: we oIIer no narratives, and although partly working with individual scores, the
spectator is not aware oI these. It was clear Irom the outset that improvisation had to be
inherent in the perIormance. Coming Irom a more traditional, theatre-based approach to
perIormance, whereby the ensemble works towards and contracts into a Iinished product,
Regina and I were intrigued to be challenged by the sound artist, who Iound the idea oI a
Iixed mise en scene an alien and uninteresting way oI working. For Mick, it was essential
that something new` should be happening in the moment oI perIormance, so the three oI
us always prepared to lay ourselves open to surprises.
Platform, Vol. 3, No. 2, Objects oI Engagement, Autumn 2008

In the early stages oI seeking a Iorm Ior the visual representation, we played with
the idea oI the operating theatre and the anatomy table. We wanted organs to Ieature in
the perIormance, invoking their Graeco-Roman mythological and symbolic connotations:
the liver as the seat oI love, the kidneys as the seat oI the aIIections and so on.
thought oI using intestines as skipping ropes, playing ball with hearts and kidneys, ideas
that were impractical, but residues oI which remained and Ied into later Iorms. We
thought about the sounds that Iunctioning innards make, and again we were back to the
common perception oI the body, speciIically the trunk as a hollow container with the
organs and innards Iixed in the right places. How would we do justice to the Iascinating
mechanisms oI the body in keeping with Michel Leiris` sense oI the body as a
mysterious theatre`?
The idea oI having objects perIorm as a mode oI representation came as we
started to explore the perIorming oI body parts in isolation, creating a kind oI puppet
theatre with hands, Ieet, the back oI an upper arm, or certain sections oI the Iace.
began to move in and out oI spaces carrying animal organs and body parts on shiny metal
plates heart, liver, kidney, a pig`s ear, a cow`s tongue and displaying them on surIaces
such as wooden benches. Then we began to add other objects that suggested themselves
to Iorm compositions, such as a large butcher`s kniIe, a little articulated wooden man
plucked Irom one oI our gardens. This early experiment Ied into the ultimate Iorm we
chose oI moving objects in and out oI the mini-theatres that made up the cabinet.

ReIerences to the mythological status oI organs Irequently Ieature in the plays oI Shakespeare; see, Ior
example, Merrv Wives of Windsor where Pistol speaks oI FalstaII as loving Ford`s wiIe |w|ith liver
burning hot` (2.2.112). Freud has written extensively on mythology and the organs oI the body. See also
Joseph Campbell`s work on mythology and his theory that the genesis oI mythology is in the energies oI
the organs oI the body in conIlict with each other` in The Power of Mvth (New York: Doubleday, 1988) 39.
We Iound that the Iull Iace was so linked to an identiIiable subject that it didn`t seem to read well as an
object; it didn`t disconnect so readily Irom the rest oI the body as, say, a Ioot, a hand or the back oI the
upper arm in isolation.
Cabinet of Curiosities
As we began to pursue the idea oI displaying individual objects Ior contemplation,
transIorming them into curious objects, it made more sense to take our perIormers`
bodies in their entirety out oI the picture. The idea oI displaying curious objects took us
to the concept oI cabinets oI curiosity or, in German, Wunderkammern`. We liked the
Iact that the German word Ior cabinet oI curiosity - Wunderkammer`- takes us beyond
mere curiosity, connoting the idea oI wonder in the noun Wunder, surprise in the verb
sich wundern, and strange or odd in the adjective wunderlich. What also appealed to us
was the term Kunstkammer,` used in the early Renaissance period, with its connotations
oI microcosm or theatre oI the world and memory theatre (Fiorani 268). Most oI the
things that Ieature as objects or components oI objects in the cabinet are not in
themselves curious. In their quotidian context, they exist only to serve some banal
Iunction or be consumed, or as Pearson and Thomas say, they exist Ior us in a state oI
inconspicuous Iamiliarity` (Pearson 157), only drawing attention to themselves when they
break, go missing or become unsuitable Ior consumption, in the case oI animal parts. But
by being Iramed in a compartment oI our cabinet almost a miniature proscenium arch`
they acquire a watchability,` demanding to be looked at and contemplated.
Having decided to create a cabinet oI curiosities we began to collect objects that
might lend themselves to being perIormed in the cabinet and that were somehow linked
to our areas oI interest. Some we actively looked Ior, as when shopping in the market Ior
Iruit and vegetables: cabbages, peppers, aubergines, organs and innards. We searched
among objects we already had in our possession, in boxes oI odds and ends Irom our
attics. And some items we simply stumbled upon at various sites, such as the beach,
reIlecting Kantor`s idea oI a Iound object being locatable somewhere between the
Platform, Vol. 3, No. 2, Objects oI Engagement, Autumn 2008

garbage and inIinity (The Theatre of Tadeus: Kantor ). However, we always worked with
a sense oI encounter or recognition: what seemed to be actively presenting itselI to us or
announcing its presence? For example, I came upon an old discolored rubber glove on a
beach one day and wondered how an abandoned, useless rubber glove with holes in it,
likely to be washed out to sea, might acquire a whole new signiIicance when transIormed
into a curious object, perhaps placed on a shiny plate, lit with a certain intensity oI light
and bathed in the soundscape it inspired in the sound artist. Furthermore, in this new
composition it might trigger a myriad oI diIIerent associations in the imagination oI an
audience member regarding it, Irom Iilms watched, novels read, and so on. It could
become, Ior instance, the hand oI the monster created by Victor Frankenstein. What an
honour, we might say, Ior a lowly, disused rubber glove to have such an identity
conIerred upon it!
In this process oI trying things out,` we became aware oI the journeys that things
took Irom the moment we chose them, and liIted them Irom their quotidian context, to
their being perIormed in the cabinet. We began to develop a sense oI the criteria by which
we chose them what was the object`s scope Ior readability? and oI diIIerent ways oI
looking. For instance, when we purchased innards and organs in the market we became
aware that our way oI looking, and the vocabulary we were using to establish what we
would accept and reject as items Ior purchase, was totally at odds with the perception oI
the person behind the counter doing the selling. As we discussed the visual impact oI
samples oI liver, kidneys, hearts, and how we thought they would read in the cabinet,
asking to view the pieces Irom various angles, we would suddenly realize that we were
Cabinet of Curiosities
trying the patience oI the salesperson. At the tripe and drisheen
counter in Cork`s
renowned English Market, I once Iound myselI almost having to tussle with the lady
behind the counter to sell me the quantities and shapes I thought would work in the
cabinet, as she went to slice oII chunks, telling me in good natured tones that I`d never be
able to eat such large quantities. The journey the tripe and the drisheen made Irom sitting
anonymously with larger quantities in stainless steel bowls at the market to being
perIormed in our cabinet was a journey oI transIormation, a process oI individuation, oI
acquiring objectness. The same could be said Ior any oI the other ordinary objects, the
cabbages, peppers, passion Iruits etc that have made their way into the cabinet. A pig`s
kidney is no longer simply a piece oI meat lying in a stainless steel bowl,
indistinguishable Irom the dozens oI other kidneys surrounding it that will Iind their way
into a plastic bag and then on to the pan, and so on; by being displayed,
by perIorming`
in a microcosmic theatre it draws attention to itselI. As Terry Eagleton would say oI the
words chosen to craIt a poem, there is a disproportion between the signiIier |.| and the
signiIied |.|` (2). Moreover, in juxtaposition with the other objects in the cabinet it
might signiIy many diIIerent things in the minds oI individual spectators.

Dried sheep`s blood in a kind oI sausage Iorm.
We used antique silver display units oIten with a reveal element such as a sliding cover to Irame the
organs as precious objects.
Platform, Vol. 3, No. 2, Objects oI Engagement, Autumn 2008


Fig. 3, pig`s kidney perIormed in the cabinet, video still. Declan O' Meara.
The decision to use animal organs in the cabinet, such as the pig`s kidney seen in
the image above, was inIormed by our idea oI rupturing the sense oI boundary between
inside and outside and the desire to contemplate the mysterious theatre oI the inner Iorces
oI the body that usually remain invisible to the naked eye. This impulse was inIormed, Ior
example, by the paintings oI Francis Bacon, which visually represent the disruption oI the
idea oI the skin as a barrier between inside and outside or oI the body having discrete
boundaries. As Giles Deleuze argues, what Iascinates Bacon is not movement, but its
eIIect on an immobile body: heads whipped by the wind or deIormed by an aspiration,
but also the interior Iorces that climb through the Ilesh` (xii). When we considered the
ethics oI using` the organs and body parts oI deIenceless - albeit dead - animals Ior our
art, we assuaged our conscience with the knowledge that we were rescuing them Irom a
moribund Iate as meat Ior purchase and consumption, giving them a brieI career` as
dramatis personae in the theatre. To date, no audience member has objected to or
expressed oIIence at our use oI animal organs. Responses usually come in the Iorm oI
visceral reactions, such as I Ielt like my liver was being stroked.`
Cabinet of Curiosities

Fig. 4, cabbage, video still. Declan O' Meara.
When Iruit and vegetables Ieature in the cabinet they are oIten ripped apart, cut or
squashed. We chose to dissect` the Iruit and vegetables rather than the organs, as that
would have reIerenced their moribund existence as meat. Interestingly, spectators
Irequently Iound the perIormance oI the Iruit and vegetables more disturbing as
compared with that oI the organs. These dismemberings tie in with our impulse to link
our own curiosity to what seems to be man`s insatiable need to take things apart to Iind
out how they work, the endless quest to get inside things and reduce them to their
component parts in order to get to the bottom oI their mysteries. An inIluence in this
instance was Tim Marshall`s Murdering to Dissect which thematises how easily this
drive can degenerate into destructiveness and criminal activity.
Marshall`s study on
grave-robbing takes its title Irom Wordsworth`s 1798 poem The Tables Turned`:

For example, Marshall outlines the case oI the 19
century Edinburgh anatomist, Dr Robert Knox, who
obtained Iresh corpses by paying the inIamous Irishmen William Burke and William Hare, who smothered
their victims in a manner that leIt no signs oI violence on the body.
Platform, Vol. 3, No. 2, Objects oI Engagement, Autumn 2008

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous Iorms oI things;
We murder to dissect. (qtd in Marshall 1)
This extract Irom Wordsworth`s poem has also Ieatured as an object` in our cabinet.

Fig. 5. arms in isolation, video still.
Regina and I used our hands to animate and manipulate the objects in the cabinet.
Our hands thereIore became an intrinsic part oI the perIormance, Iorming compositions
with the objects. But they also Ieatured as perIormed objects in isolation, as did our Ieet,
and parts oI our arms, legs and Iaces. This perIormance choice was inIormed by the
photographs oI Francesca Woodman. These give expression to the Iragility oI psycho-

In the earlier perIormances Regina and I used radio-microphones during the perIormance to add text
Iragments to the soundscape at intervals chosen in the moment oI perIormance. Further text Iragments we
used were taken, Ior example, Irom The Applicant` and Cut` by Silvia Plath, Ashputtle or The Mother`s
Ghost` by Angela Carter, Salt` by Pablo Neruda and The Nose` by Christian Morgenstern. For the later
perIormances we decided to take our live voices out oI the perIormance to avoid an association in the
spectator`s mind between us as perIormers and our body parts as objects` in perIormance.
Cabinet of Curiosities
corporeal boundaries, as the body oI the artist at once subject and object oI her images
merges with and Iades into disintegrating surIaces such as the cracked, crumbling walls
oI derelict houses and tombstones, behind strips oI loose wallpaper; isolated limbs
emerge Irom holes in porous walls. Other sources oI inspiration Ior our use oI our bodies
included the photographs Nude, Chairs, Arms and Legs by Edward Weston or Peek a Boo
Fingers by Ernestine Ruben, which present abstracted body parts in relation to the Iield
and the Irame oI the image (Ewing 39; 41). Framing and perIorming abstracted body
parts allows them to become synecdochic, acquiring properties oI the whole, such as a
personality, the ability to think and perceive, which resonates with Richard Schechner`s
argument that, the body is an organism oI endless adaptability. A knee can think, a
Iinger can laugh, a belly cry, a brain walk and a buttock listen` (132). Limbs or a mouth
perceived thus, in abstraction, give the spectator the Ireedom to contemplate and
imaginatively engage with the idea oI a hand or a Ioot without having to negotiate the
owner. This ensures that the spectator`s Iocus is consistently on the contents oI the
cabinet and not on the perIormers concealed behind it.
As manipulators oI the objects Irom behind the cabinet, we see nothing oI what
the audience sees and, with each successive perIormance, I have noticed that I work
increasingly with a sense oI looking and listening with my hands. I oIten close my eyes to
help me to hear the soundscape created by the sound artist, and respond better with my
hands. Because oI the improvisatorial and abstract nature oI the piece, it is always
Iascinating to hear how spectators respond to the objects, what journeys the objects take
them on, what connections they make between objects in the cabinet in any given
moment. The responses are rendered all the more diverse by virtue oI the Iact that, unlike
Platform, Vol. 3, No. 2, Objects oI Engagement, Autumn 2008

the traditional static cabinet oI curiosity, this is a live, kinaesthetic cabinet. It is made up
oI composite elements that are constantly shiIting under the spectators` gazes and the
perIormers` manipulations. Even iI the material objects remain still Ior a time, the
soundscape that Iorms part oI the composition is also constantly shiIting. Sometimes we
adjust the degree oI light illuminating an object with the individual dimmer switches and
again, the composite object becomes something slightly diIIerent.
The philosopher Michael Moreau argues that, the world seems to be Iull oI
objects that lack sharp boundaries and in this sense really are vague` (334).
He invites
the reader to take any ordinary material object: on close inspection she will Iind that
something is always tearing away or coming loose, microscopic particles are always
wearing oII at the edges or evaporating away. He takes the example oI Tibbles the cat`
whose loose whisker will ultimately drop oII Ior good. This loose whisker is
characterized as a questionable` part oI Tibbles (334). Parts that detach combine with
something else to Iorm something new. Almost every object we can apprehend, thereIore,
is in a constant state oI Ilux: as Morreau writes, composition is completely unrestricted`
(337). It could be argued that The Cabinet of Curiosities is a theatricalised version oI
Moreau`s ideas, in that it draws attention to, or Iormalizes, and perIorms this permanent
state oI Ilux that objects Iind themselves in. The shiIting assemblages perIormed on the
twelve mini-stages that are interpenetrated by the sound elements, and that in the course
oI the 30-minute perIormance Iorm a kind oI palimpsest, draw the spectator into an
activity oI completely unrestricted` composition. This brings us back to Emerson`s idea
oI a process oI marriage between object and subject.

Objects here can mean anything Irom organisms, cities, abstract entities to ordinary material objects and
the objects are described as vague because their Iunctional parts get lost graduallv.
Cabinet of Curiosities
The Cabinet of Curiosities continues as a work-in-progress Ior GAITKRASH. To
date, we have perIormed the piece just six times and with each successive perIormance
we have learned to trust how our impulses respond in the moment, as well as the piece`s
capacity to engage our audiences. Spectators have commented that attending our
perIormance is like having dream time,` allowing memory shards to Iloat to the surIace
and connect with the objects in the cabinet in whatever way suggests itselI. In this sense
we could describe the piece as post-dramatic, since it relates to the spectator`s sense oI
the world but presents no surveyable whole` (Lehmann 11). The spectator creates the
piece out oI her personal aggregation oI narratives in combination with the visual and
aural impulses oIIered in perIormance. The cabinet, although in itselI a bounded entity or
container, is Iull oI gaps and holes, unmarked spaces, and this circumstance allows the
piece to resonate with the spectator`s inner landscape. According to Julie Salverson, it is
these gaps in a non-literalistic representational Iorm that hold |.| the circle oI knowing
open,` that create space across which the Iamiliar and the strange can gaze upon each
other` (3).
In Iurther phases oI the work we plan to invite audience members to place things
in a box beIore the perIormance that we will use as objects in the cabinet. We would like
to gather stories in post-perIormance discussions about the new lives these things
acquired in the minds oI spectators as a result oI objectiIying them as Ioci oI thought`
(Pearson 159) and contemplation in perIormance. We also plan to travel with the piece,
making it speciIic to the places it is perIormed in by Iilling the cabinet with objects we
Iind locally, in markets, dustbins, skips, wherever an object beckons to us. As the project
has evolved, the diversity oI spectators` Ieedback on which objects have signiIied Ior
Platform, Vol. 3, No. 2, Objects oI Engagement, Autumn 2008

them personally has taught us that the lighter our touch and the more playIul our
approach to working the objects in the perIormance the more we set them Iree as objects
oI engagement Ior the watcher. We are learning to work with a sense that |t|he material
world around us is inherently to-be-interpreted` (Pearson 155) because, in Emerson`s
words, there is a radical correspondence between visible things and human thought`
(Brown, 60).
Cabinet of Curiosities
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London: Harvard UP, 1997.
Brown, Lee Rust. The Emerson Museum.` Representations 40 (1992): 57-80.
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Burgin, Victor. The City in Pieces.`The Actualitv of Walter Benfamin. Ed. Laura Marcus
and Lynda Nead. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1998. 55-71.
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Marcus, Laura and Lynda Nead, eds. The Actualitv of Walter Benfamin. London:
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Marshall, Tim. Murdering to Dissect. Grave-Robbing, Frankenstein and the Anatomv
Literature. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1995.
Morreau, Michael. What Vague Objects Are Like`. The Journal of Philosophv
Platform, Vol. 3, No. 2, Objects oI Engagement, Autumn 2008

99 (2002): 333-361. 22 Aug. 2008.
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Salverson, Julie. PerIorming Emergency: Witnessing, Popular Theatre, and the Lie oI
the Literal.` Theatre Topics 6.2 (1996): 181191. 22 Aug. 2008.
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